Wearing a fitness tracker might help you track how many steps you take, but the devices themselves — even with the lure of a cash reward — probably won’t improve your health, according to the biggest study yet done on the trendy technology.
Scientists say that although the activity trackers might boost the number of steps people take, it probably isn’t enough to help them drop pounds or improve overall health.
“These are basically measuring devices,” said Eric Finkelstein, a professor at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, who led the research. “Knowing how active you are doesn’t translate into getting people to do more, and the novelty of having that information wears off pretty quickly.”
Finkelstein and colleagues tested the Fitbit Zip tracker in a group of 800 adults in Singapore, by dividing them into four groups. Of those people, more than half were overweight and obese, and about one third were active.
A control group got information about exercise but no tracker, and a second group got the Fitbit Zip; everyone in those groups also got about $2.92 a week. Participants in the last two groups got the tracker and about $11 for every week they logged between 50,000 and 70,000 steps. One group had the money donated to charity; the other group kept the cash.
After six months, people with the Fitbit and who got the cash payment showed the biggest boost in physical activity. But after a year, 90 percent of participants had abandoned the device. The physical activity of the Fitbit wearers didn’t decline over the year as much as it did for those who were not given a tracker, but the higher activity level wasn’t enough to produce improvements in weight or blood pressure.
“These trackers can encourage people to take more steps, but it still seems like these random extra steps aren’t enough to really improve your health,” Finkelstein said. He said what’s needed is more “active steps,” such as brisk walking or more rigorous exercise.
The study was paid for by Singapore’s ministry of health and published online this week in the journal Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology.
The results seem to reinforce those of another study, published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In that study, conducted over two years, researchers found that adding wearable activity tracking devices to a diet and fitness program didn’t result in more weight loss. Those who didn’t wear devices lost about five pounds more than those who wore them, but both groups slimmed down and improved their eating habits, fitness and activity levels.
Fitbit, in a statement responding to the study , said: “We are confident in the positive results our millions of users have seen from using Fitbit products.” The statement went on to say that it was improving its trackers. Fitbit shares have fallen by half since the beginning of the year, to just under $15 a share.